HomeCourt room newsCourt Refuses Obasanjo’s Request to Relist N1b Defamation Suit Against Punch

Court Refuses Obasanjo’s Request to Relist N1b Defamation Suit Against Punch

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The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Abuja, has thrown out former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s request to relist an earlier terminated N1 billion defamation suit against Punch newspaper.

The judge, Modupe Osho-Adebiyi, issued the order in a ruling delivered on 21 April.

A certified true copy of the decision received shortly after it was issued on Tuesday shows that the judge had dismissed the N1 billion defamation suit on 19 October 2023 after a lawyer in Mr Obasanjo’s legal team voluntarily applied to withdraw it.

The judge also awarded N4 million in cost against Mr Obasanjo in favour of Punch newspaper and its columnist, Sonala Olumhense, whose article triggered the former president’s defamation suit.
The cost was awarded to the defendants to cover their expenses, including the costs of flights and filings they submitted in response to the short-lived legal action.

Signalling her displeasure at the waste of time the suit amounted to, the judge, on her own, raised the N3 million cost requested by the defendants’ lawyers, N1.5 million for each, to N4 million, that is, N2 million for each.

The judge also issued a dismissal order for the case against Mr Obasanjo’s legal team’s expectation of a striking order, which would have given room for future re-litigation.

Mr Obasanjo would later apply to the court to relist the case.

He anchored his request on a claim that his lawyer withdrew the case without his authorisation.

The relisting request was turned down

But the request was met with the same stiffness with which the judge threw the main case out in October 2023.

“The facts relied upon by the applicant that the counsel on record for the claimant, Bisong Otinya, Esq., filed the notice of discontinuance without the authorisation from his principal, and the court dismissed the case as a result of the misrepresentation of the counsel. This Court gave a well-considered ruling on the 19th of October 2023 dismissing the case of the claimant, the case having reached the point of ‘lists contestation’.

“It is therefore baffling that the claimant will come before this court seeking for an order relisting this suit which has already been dismissed and not struck out,” Ms Osho-Adebiyi wrote in her judgement, a certified true copy of which was made available to PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday.

The judge made a distinction between a striking-out order and a dismissal order. While a struck-out case can be refiled, a dismissed case cannot, the judge said.

“The claimant is clearly under a mistaken belief that this suit already dismissed can fall under a struck-out suit.

“This instant case does not fall into the category of where a dismissed case can be relisted having filed a notice of discontinuance at the close of pleading,” the judge said.

Defamation suit

Mr Obasanjo, a former military head of state in the late 70s and later elected president between 1999 and 2007, began his legal battle with Punch, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, after publishing a critical article authored by Mr Olumhense against him on 27 January 2019.

The former president sued both the media house and the columnist N1 billion as damages on the grounds that the article was “false, malicious, unjustified, injurious, scornful, distasteful, unsavoury,” and exposed him to “public odium, ridicule and disdain.”

In the syndicated article titled “This is the Best Contribution Obasanjo Can Make,” Mr Olumhense recalled previous articles he had written about Mr Obasanjo, where he noted his “persistent efforts to distort Nigeria’s history and colour it in his image.”

Mr Olumhense, in the article, also said, “Obasanjo was no anti-corruption champion either, although nobody harangues corruption better than he. Yes, he launched the EFCC and ICPC, but they fought only the fights he allowed and wrote the reports he wanted. His real motivation was the largely retaliatory drive to recover the so-called (Sani) Abacha loot against the man who had thrown him behind bars. In the end, he could not account for the billions of dollars recovered.”

He also wrote: “So abominable was Obasanjo’s performance on electricity that he lavished at least $10 billion he could not justify. The House of Representatives said Obasanjo often paid money to companies that had not cleared space for the projects.

“In an article in December 2006, I demonstrated that he spent close to N1 trillion on roads. In December 2013, using one of those roads, I explored how persistent parallel spending keeps the money flowing but not project delivery.”

Incensed by the remarks in the article, the former president, through his lawyer, Kanu Agabi, urged the court to declare that the article does not “constitute a valid exercise by the defendants of their freedom of speech and expression.”

He also prayed for a perpetual injunction “restraining the defendants their associates, agents, assignees, servants, privies, proxies, allies or anyone howsoever called from further publishing or causing to be published the words complained of or any other defamatory words concerning the claimant.”

Mr Obasanjo also prayed the court to issue an order directing the defendants to retract the “defamatory words via a publication on the front page of two national newspapers within three days from the day of the delivery of the judgment of the court.”

Withdrawal

A lawyer in Mr Obasanjo’s legal team, Bisong Otinya, filed an application for discontinuance of the suit last year, over four years after the commencement of the suit.

Daily Trust reported that following the application of discontinuance, Punch’s and Olumhense’s lawyers, R.O. Adakole and Sam Ogala of Femi Falana’s law firm, respectively, urged the court to award them a total of N3 million in costs for the travels and filing of processes they incurred.

They also asked for the suit to be dismissed following its discontinuance by the claimant.

“Having dismissed this suit, it is trite that costs follow events. The case has incurred a lot of costs, and counsel, at times, has had to travel from outside jurisdiction to attend court.

“Both counsel have sought a cost of N3m only each, but I hereby award the sum of N2m only each to the 1st and 2nd defendants as cost of this action,” the judge ruled.

Request for relisting

Mr Obasanjo, through his legal team, later returned to the court to call for the relisting of the case on the grounds that the judgement dismissing the initial defamation suit was based on misrepresentation of facts.

They added that the suit was withdrawn without Mr Obasanjo’s authorisation, adding that the dispute between parties is yet to be determined on merit. They, thus, said, “Justice is yet to be done in the case,” calling on the court to relist the case.

But Punch and Mr Olumhense opposed the application. Their lawyers argued that the applicant failed to place materials or sufficient facts to persuade the court to sit on appeal over its decision. They urged the court to dismiss the application for relisting having become “functus officio” to entertain the application.

Subtle rebuke of Obasanjo

The court upheld the respondents’ arguments and dismissed Mr Obasanjo’s application.

She ruled that there was nothing to show that Mr Obasanjo did not give the instruction for the withdrawal of the case.

“The Applicant in this suit cannot come through the back door to another to relitigate this suit,” the judge said, expressing doubts about the claim that the instruction to withdraw the libel suit did not emanate from Mr Obasanjo.
“Merely stating that the counsel misrepresented facts without more would not suffice for this court to relist this case. I am forced to ask what exactly is the misrepresentation being relied on by the Applicant. I see nothing before this court of the said misrepresentation as there is nothing from the Claimant himself to show that he did not instruct the counsel to file the said notice of discontinuance.”

The judge said the law is that “a client is bound by any decision taken by his counsel in a case, having filed the said notice of discontinuance, it is bound to be the act of the claimant and this court having dismissed same on the instruction of claimant’s counsel will therefore not exercise its discretion in favour of the Applicant.”

In another subtle rebuke of Mr Obasanjo and his legal team, the judge said: “This court is not a playground, and lawyers should approach their cases with professionalism and respect for the judicial process.

“A party cannot be permitted to toy with the court’s procedures based on his mood, regardless of the obvious, clear, and unequivocal provisions of the law that he intended to apply. The party must drown or swim with what he has voluntarily activated.”

She said she could not exercise her discretion in favour of Mr Obasanjo, adding that “the claimant’s case and same it remains dismissed.”

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